TCS Daily

Rock the Felon Vote

By John R. Lott - March 4, 2005 12:00 AM

In the wake of their election defeat, Democrats have promised to mend their ways by emphasizing moral values. So, in their first major legislative initiative of the year, what are the party's two top senators offering? A bill to guarantee that millions of convicted murderers, rapists, armed robbers, and those who have violently assaulted others can vote.

This week, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry officially introduced the Count Every Vote Act, which she claims is "critical to restoring America's faith in our voting system." Among the provisions: A measure to insure that voting rights are restored to "felons who have repaid their debt to society" by completing their prison terms, parole or probation.


Sen. Clinton says there are 4.7 million such disenfranchised felons in 48 states and the District of Columbia.


The power to deny voting rights to ex-convicts now rests with the states, so standards vary across the country. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution explicitly allows for states to deny felons the right to vote.


Sens. Clinton and Kerry do have good reason to want ex-convicts to vote: Felons overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.


In recent academic work, Jeff Manza and Marcus Britton of Northwestern University and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota estimated that Bill Clinton pulled 86 percent of the felon vote in 1992 and a whopping 93 percent in '96.


The researchers found that about 30 percent of felons vote when given the chance. So, if all 4.7 million of Mrs. Clinton's ex-cons are re-enfranchised, about 1.4 million will cast ballots, and about 1.2 million of those will be for Democrats.


Manza & Co.'s results indicate that this "felon vote" would have given Democrats the White House in the 2000 and control of the Senate from 1986 to 2004.


Seattle Times reporters last month identified 129 felons in King and Pierce counties who had voted illegally in the Nov. 2 election -- in a race that Democrat Christine Gregoire won by, coincidentally, 129 votes. Extrapolating the illegal felon vote across the entire state, one can conclude that Gregoire owes her controversial victory to ex-cons who should not have voted -- but did.


Why shouldn't felons be able to vote if they have paid their debt to society? Simply because society believes that the debt includes a prohibition on voting.


It is hardly a radical notion to penalize felons long after they have left prison or completed parole. Laws deny ex-cons the right to hold office, to retain professional licenses (lawyers, for example, lose their ability to practice), or to serve as an officer in a publicly traded company. Felons, by law, can in some cases lose their right to inherit property, to collect pension benefits or even to get a truck-driving license.


In fact, in most states, the loss of voting rights does not last as long as other prohibitions.


Looked at from the punishment angle, it is no more obvious why all states should impose the same rules on felons voting than they should have the same prison terms or face all these other penalties for the same length of time.


In addition, post-sentence penalties are placed on criminals not only who have committed felonies but who have committed misdemeanors, including, under federal law, the right to own a gun. We doubt that Sens. Clinton and Kerry will be crusading to restore that right any time soon.


When people harm others, we learn something about them. Do we want someone who has committed multiple rapes helping determine how much money will be spent on social programs that help rape victims?


Clinton and Kerry appear to be angling, not for the votes of centrists but for the votes of the most dedicated left-wing constituency in America: Criminals. We doubt, however, that most Americans believe that felons comprise a minority group that deserves such special favors.


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